Robert Dillon: Sporting Declaration

IN among all the drama and intrigue surrounding Anthony Griffin’s ruthless sacking at Penrith, an inspiring story has earned little more than a footnote.

TOP JOB: Cameron Ciraldo is the NRL's youngest head coach, at 33.

TOP JOB: Cameron Ciraldo is the NRL's youngest head coach, at 33.

Specifically, Cameron Ciraldo will become an NRL head coach this weekend.

FLASHBACK: Cameron Ciraldo in agony after suffering a horrific broken leg playing for the Newcastle Knights against Cronulla in 2009. Picture: Ryan Osland

FLASHBACK: Cameron Ciraldo in agony after suffering a horrific broken leg playing for the Newcastle Knights against Cronulla in 2009. Picture: Ryan Osland

Ciraldo might not be a household name, but most Knights supporters will remember him for the four seasons and 43 games he spent in Newcastle between 2008 and 2011.

The towering back-rower was by no means the best player ever to have worn a red-and-blue jersey, but it is hard to recall a more likable or popular clubman.

Ciraldo arrived in Newcastle from Cronulla at the end of 2007, one of a host of unheralded and speculative signings unearthed by then coach Brian Smith.

Having played 19 games for the Sharks in the previous three seasons, he was looking for a chance to establish himself as a first-grade regular. That proved tougher than expected at Newcastle.

HARD YARDS: Ciraldo training as he recovered from his broken leg.

HARD YARDS: Ciraldo training as he recovered from his broken leg.

With the likes of Steve Simpson, Chris Houston, Cory Paterson and Zeb Taia also in the squad, competition for selection in the back row was fierce.

Ciraldo played 14 NRL games in his first year with the Knights, and spent his fair share of time in reserve grade.

Two games into the next season, 2009, he suffered a horrendous broken leg, snapping his right fibula in four places and dislocating his ankle playing on his former home ground, Shark Park.

“Initially, I felt the pain, but then I was just shattered,” he told me a few weeks later.

“I kind of knew what was coming after that. I knew I was off contract, and ... as soon as it happened I knew everything was against me. At first, I wondered if I'd ever play again.”

Adding to his anguish, barely 24 hours after being injured he attended his grandmother’s funeral in a wheelchair, ignoring doctor’s orders.

After surgery he spent three weeks on painkillers, sleeping fitfully on a mattress in the living room, and six weeks on crutches.

He did not play again that season and hence had little bargaining power when he negotiated a new deal with the Knights.

“Contracts are a lot of stress to go through … people probably don’t understand what it’s like if you’re not one of those superstars,” he said at the time.

“I've got a family to support, just like everyone else.”

Over the next two seasons Ciraldo played in 27 more NRL games for the Knights, despite suffering another body blow, this time a torn pectoral. But when it was announced in early 2011 that Wayne Bennett would be taking the reins at Newcastle, it was clear Ciraldo would not feature in his plans.

For the second time in three years, he feared his professional career was over. He was far from inundated with offers and, indeed, struggled even to get his own agent to return phone calls. 

Then, out of the blue, Penrith supremo Phil Gould made contact. 

Ciraldo rushed to meet him the Central Coast and returned with a two-year NRL lifeline.

Over the next two seasons he played in 32 top-grade games for the Panthers before retiring, age 28, after suffering a lacerated pancreas in a Konrad Hurrell tackle, while representing Italy against Tonga in the 2014 World Cup.

But Gould recognised that Ciraldo had more to offer – in particular his work ethic and honesty – and was the type of character Penrith needed to keep within their organisation.

Initially he was offered the positions of education-and-welfare officer and assistant coach of the Panthers under-20s.

Then in 2015 he steered Penrith to the National Youth Competition premiership, before joining Griffin’s support staff.

Now, after Griffin’s demise this week, the 33-year-old finds himself at the helm of the NRL’s fifth-placed team, just four weeks out from the finals.

A caretaker posting it may be, given that Ivan Cleary is clearly Penrith’s preferred candidate for a long-term appointment.

But what if Ciraldo was able to steer the Panthers into the grand final, or even to the title? And what if Cleary decided he would instead honour his contract with Wests Tigers?

Whatever the case, Ciraldo’s elevation to the top job is a reminder of what can be achieved through perseverance.

I have to admit that if you had told me 10 years ago, when I first met “Ciro”, he would one day be an NRL head coach, I would never have believed it.

In most sporting teams, the players with big egos and personalities are the natural leaders. Ciraldo was in stark contrast.

Indeed during his first season with the Knights, one of his problems was that he was too meek on the field.

As he told me at the time: “I’m not being dominant enough to call for the ball ... I just have to get used to demanding the ball and putting myself in the right spot to get it.”

People adapt and evolve, however, and players probably prefer coaches who are calm and measured to those who rant and rave.

How long Ciraldo’s tenure will last is anyone’s guess. Here’s hoping he continues to enhance his reputation as one of the game’s quiet achievers for many years to come.